Corona: CDC’s struggles with the White House under Trump

CDC’s struggles with the White House under Trump, and how tens of thousands of lives were lost due to political expedience.

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By Shafaat Khan, Washington, DC, Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: It’s a known fact that there’s no place in the world that has more epidemiologists and scientists studying respiratory infections than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases

CDC hosted a teleconference call with reporters about the new coronavirus on January 17, 2020, not even A WEEK after China had reported its first death.  CDC’s Dr. Messonier warned, “It’s crucial to be PROACTIVE and prepared.”  Relations between CDC & WH soured in late February when high-ranking CDC official Nancy Messonnier warned the American public — at a time when President Donald Trump was out of the country and downplaying the threat — that “the DISRUPTION to everyday life might be severe.”

According to CDC, in their 73 years of existence, “the message we received in previous administrations was, you guys are the scientists.  That’s not the case this time. If the science that we are offering up contradicts a specific policy goal, then we are the problem.”  CDC normally gives guidance and then STATES take that guidance and turn it into POLICY.

The CDC in March said, ‘Go home and stay there,’ and they were very clear. But Trump administration shelved CDC-drafted guidelines to reopen the US because they were more strict and detailed than the White House’s own road map toward a return to normal.

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Truth be told, the CDC experienced a snafu when they botched effort to distribute testing in early February, when contamination in the lab led to long delays.  So admittedly there were mistakes with the early problems with testing.  But CDC was transparent and relentless in sending out grim warnings throughout January 2020, and on February 26 Trump installed Vice President Mike Pence as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.  The telebriefings tapered off shortly thereafter, and it got really dicey because obviously it became HYPER POLITICAL.

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In the early weeks of the US coronavirus outbreak, staff members in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tracked a growing number of transmissions in Europe and elsewhere and proposed a global advisory that would alert flyers to the dangers of air travel.  CDC alerted the White House to the virus’s rapid spread across Europe, but the White House was extremely focused on China and not wanting to anger Europe.  Even though that’s where most of our cases were originally coming from.  About a week passed before the alert was issued publicly — crucial time lost when about 66,000 European travelers were streaming into American airports EVERY DAY.

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CDC officials say their agency’s efforts to mount a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.  The result has worsened the effects of the crisis, sources inside the CDC say, relegating the 73-year-old agency that has traditionally led the nation’s response to infectious disease to a supporting role.  But now, mid- and higher-ranking staff members within the agency — six of whom spoke with CNN for this story — are starting to voice their discontent. That six-spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “We’ve been muzzled,” said a current CDC official. “What’s tough is that if we would have acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have SAVED lives and money.”

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In the past: During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, Dr. Anne Schuchat — then the CDC’s director of the National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (she’s now the principal deputy director) — was a constant presence in the media, so much so that she became the inspiration for Kate Winslet’s character in the movie “Contagion.”  During the Ebola crisis of 2014, then CDC head Tom Frieden took command of the public spotlight, heading up press conferences to deliver the latest news and often serving as the voice of the federal government’s response in media interviews.

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